ATLANTA -- By the time North Carolina linebacker Quan Sturdivant had joined his teammates around 10:30 p.m. at their hotel on Friday night, most of the Tar Heels were already asleep.
Sturdivant, who had just learned on Friday afternoon that he had been deemed eligible to play in Saturday night’s game against LSU, was one of the few recognizable names on North Carolina’s quickly revamped defense, which was missing seven starters as a result of ongoing investigations into possible academic fraud and improper contact with agents.
The Tar Heels’ entire starting lineup had been shuffled for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff, one of the biggest games of college football’s opening weekend -- a roster filled with new faces and dependent upon teenagers fresh out of high school. North Carolina’s staff burned at least eight redshirts it had no intention of burning two weeks ago. There were walk-ons who had never played in games before. And yet despite the lack of any continuity in the personnel department, North Carolina somehow managed to establish an identity in its exciting 30-24 loss to LSU.
This is a team that doesn’t quit -- no matter who is playing.
“We were depleted as is, and we had some guys go down during the game,” said quarterback T.J. Yates. “We had guys who have never played before -- ever -- coming out of high school ball playing against one of the top teams in the country. I’m just so proud of all my teammates stepping up.
“In terms of personnel we were uncertain coming into this game but I think we proved to everybody that no matter who’s out there playing, we can compete with anybody,” Yates said. “This is one of the top teams in the country and we’re playing with a lot of guys who have never played before. We showed everybody that no matter what’s going on in the media, the uncertainty with the players -- everything -- we can get past it.”
They just couldn’t get past their own mistakes.
UNC made miscues on special teams that contributed to poor field position at times and a safety. It fumbled the ball five times and lost it three. The quarterback-center exchange was part of the problem. The Tar Heels also allowed four sacks and totaled just 24 rushing yards, adding up to a 30-10 deficit with only 10:34 remaining. All-ACC tight end Zack Pianalto dropped two passes in the end zone in the final desperate seconds.
Yet there were times North Carolina looked capable of pulling off the improbable, like when Jheranie Boyd, who finished with an eye-popping, game-record 221 receiving yards, hauled in a beautiful 97-yard touchdown catch. Instead of being the scapegoat, Yates kept the Tar Heels in the game by completing 28 of 46 passes for 410 yards and three touchdowns -- no interceptions.
“It’s encouraging but at the same time disappointing,” guard Alan Pelc said. “We feel like we can progress from here. We had a momentum swing in that second half that when we watch film tomorrow or the next day we’ll see there are some things we need to fix, but we could’ve pulled that game off.”
At the team chapel on Friday night, the message during the service was to keep each other’s heads up. Boyd said the players took it to heart.
“We have heart and we’re going to fight back,” he said. “No matter how many points we’re down, teams shouldn’t play around with us or not take us seriously. We can fight back at anytime.”
Coach Butch Davis told his team in the locker room he didn’t think he’d ever been more proud of a team.
“Our depth was unbelievably put to the test,” he said. “We were shorthanded in a significant number of phases. Defensively, in nickel packages, all of the depth got eaten up on special teams. Guys were having to play way more plays than they needed to play.
“It’s a testimony to their courage to keep fighting, keep playing,” he said. “We said before the game that there would be some kids who would step up and surprise everybody, that all they needed was a chance, just get me in the game coach and let me play. I think when we look at the film we’ll find some kids who will help this help this football team before the season is over with.”